Thought Leadership

Storytelling: the Next-Generation Family-Business Educational Tool

A blend of two inherently complicated types of organizations—families and businesses—family businesses tend to be very complex, particularly those with long histories. Because of that, passing on information and understanding about their history, vision and values, operations, structures, and practices to the next generation can present a challenge, according to Esther Choy, Adjunct Lecturer of Family Enterprise in the John L. Ward Center for Family Enterprises. The solution? One of the oldest methods known to humankind and one already being practiced by most families: storytelling.

“One of the best ways for us to learn is being able to distill ideas in the form of a story and let listeners take what they take from it while also absorbing major principles,” said Choy, who is also Leadership Story Lab President and Chief Story Facilitator. Leadership Story Lab teaches storytelling to institutional and individual clients and shares stories of family-business success in the Family IN Business podcast, which Choy executive produces for the Center. “In family business, oftentimes new or up-and-coming generations learn from their elders and do so through many stories. Certainly, there are family-company archives and a great deal of information that is accessible. But the essence of all of the things that have to do with existential questions and their lessons are embedded and best passed on via stories.” According to John L Ward Professor of Family Enterprise Jennifer Pendergast, “Families often share the “what” but not the “why.” We learn by understanding why choices were made and how they influenced the individuals involved.”

It is encouraging that family business leaders are telling stories, Choy noted. However, most come at the process organically rather than deliberately. So they don’t develop the necessary skills to pass on information through effective storytelling or focus on improving their skills.

“Storytelling is one of the stickiest and most effective ways of getting a complex set of ideas across,” Choy noted. “But recounting events is not telling stories. If I tell you I woke up, ate breakfast and started working, I didn’t tell you a story. I just told you how my morning unfolded.”

What constitutes a story? Choy uses the letters I.R.S. as a mnemonic for remembering the basics: an intriguing beginning, a riveting middle and a satisfying end.

Mastering the elements isn’t all that’s needed, however, as Choy discovered when she first began teaching these skills. Initially, she assumed that everyone understood what to do with the story mechanics she taught, but that was not the case.

“It’s a question of where to apply it,” Choy said. “Those who grasp it more quickly are those who already had a burning desire to learn it. They noticed that someone else tells a great story every time they open their mouth, and everyone listens, but when they try it themselves, they don’t get nearly as much attention. What aren’t they doing? What gives? Those people tend to really get in and absorb everything.”

The Family IN Business podcast, inspired and commissioned by the John L. Ward Center for Family Enterprises has already proven the power of storytelling for executives in its early episodes, Choy said. In fact, it’s unique in how it encourages them to open up where they otherwise might not have in the past.

“In the typical settings where you hear these leaders talk, the topics revolve around their expertise and opinions—they did x, which led to y,” she said. “That’s good. But the focus tends to be on their competence as leaders and their credentials or rank. The emphasis I place in interviews and, consequently, in the script development is character-led. What is it about a leader’s character that led them to that rank of leadership and their roster of accomplishment? In that scenario, it’s about where you place the engine, which is character, and the cart, which is the competence and credential.”

The focus and order of the narrative are fundamental to storytelling. As is the case with any business skill, mastering those fundamentals requires learning, insight and practice.

But when you get it right? Now you have quite the tale to tell.

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Esther Choy is the President and Chief Story Facilitator at Leadership Story Lab, where she teaches storytelling to institutional and individual clients who are searching for more meaningful ways to connect with their audiences. Leaders, in turn, use their stories to communicate authentically, inspire others and create lasting impact that they previously considered out of reach. Since 2010, Esther has combined the science of persuasion and the art of storytelling to help her clients gain a competitive edge.

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